What Grieving Means From One Culture to the Next
There’s no right or wrong way to be bereaved. It hurts. It feels like it may never get better. And you miss that loved one so very, very much. Even, Keanu Reeves, he of John Wick fame, opined rather profoundly that “the ones who love us will miss us.”
There is no “correct” way to grieve any more than there is a “right” way to live. We do it each according to our own personality, identity, culture and the tenderness of our relationship to the deceased. It’s universally human, and something we are all destined to face. But perhaps there’s some comfort in knowing that we’ve all been there across the world, in every subculture on the planet.
Take comfort, then, in knowing you’re far from alone as you learn what grieving means from one culture to the next.
New Orleans Jazz Funerals
For a city constantly alive with music, it’s little wonder that the passing of a dear friend in the Big Easy’s vaunted jazz neighborhoods would likewise be celebrated robustly with instrumentation.
NewOrleans.com describes how a “jazz funeral” typically begins at a church or funeral home, with smartly dressed mourners joining the casket of the deceased on a march toward the cemetery.
Musicians first play sad and heavy tunes, but as the march processes, people join in the impromptu parade, and gradually the music proceeds upward in mood from dirges to anthems.
New Orleans Jazz Funerals (Cont.)
After the recently deceased is laid to rest, the parade continues on, often with uptempo spiritual numbers such as “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
No less an authority than Sidney Bechet, one of NOLA’s original jazzmen, is said to have remarked, “Music here is as much a part of death as it is of life.”
A pre-Christian ritual that has been maintained in the modern age can be found in Ireland, where a practice known as “keening” has been making a comeback after it was more or less frowned into nonexistence by the Catholic Church. Keening comes from an old Gaelic term, meaning to “cry or lament,” and according to the Irish Examiner, it entails loud, banshee-like wailing by women mourning for the soul of a departed loved one.
So exotic was the practice that, in Victorian times, English tourists would sometimes head across the Irish Sea for the express purpose of catching such professional wailing — grief tourism, if you will. The practice largely died out in the 1950s as being “backwards,” and the fact that the keeners were only women likely rubbed the church grief hierarchy the wrong way, too.
Buddhism and the Nature of ‘Impermanence’
Of all of Buddha’s teachings, perhaps none is as studied or revered as his tenet that “all life contains suffering.” Eastern religions like Buddhism often preach that life is cyclical and that one’s actions in life — or “karma” — will influence how the departed soul is reincarnated in the next cycle.
That can be of little comfort to friends and family left behind, but thus reinforces Buddhist teachings on “impermanence,” or that all things change.
Buddhism and the Nature of ‘Impermanence’ (Cont.)
An article on Tricycle.com says that rather than run away from the scariness of death, it is more important, at least from a Buddhist standpoint, to meditate on the impermanence of all things, including loved ones. For “grief” in Buddhist philosophy need not be about death, but rather the loss of anything, including the death of every moment, which passes as soon as it happens.
It’s important to embrace thoughts, even fearful or difficult ones, rather than run from them. “Our sorrows provide us with the lessons we most need to learn,” author Lama Surya Das said.
Islamic Last Rites
Much like other religions that emphasize moving to a “better place” after death, Muslims believe that their loved one has gone on to paradise, with their earthly woes now astern. But just as there are many sects of Christianity, so do different variations of Islam grieve, according to custom.
Funeralwise.com reports that a Muslim’s death should be announced immediately to all friends and relatives and the body washed and covered in white cotton. Within two days, the body is to be carried by four men to the graveyard, with a procession of family and friends following behind. Then, during a usually closed-casket ceremony, an imam will sit next to the casket and read from the Quran, with the body being interred so that it faces Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.
Socializing after the funeral is encouraged as a way to deal with grief over food and fellowship. The length of time for official mourning varies, but typically relatives grieve for three days, although a widow may do so for upwards of four months.
Chinese Grief Customs and the Importance of Sons
In Chinese culture, the traditions and family name are passed down through the oldest male heir, and when a family elder dies, the eldest son of the clan bears rather heavy responsibilities to honor both the deceased and ensure that the family’s name and honor continues.
A report by Indiana University reports that the first-born son is to remain in mourning for 72 days, and for six months, he cannot marry or wear the color red. No matter how he may feel internally, during that half-year he is required by custom to appear distraught in front of others.
Chinese Grief Customs and the Importance of Sons (Cont.)
The report recounts that how a person dies affects the mourning process, i.e., a person who was long-lived and of good character and died in her sleep is considered to have had a “happy” ending to the earthly journey. However, a “bad ending” could result from accident, suicide, the only son of a home dying young or even parents passing on without having fathered a male heir. In such situations, mourners keep a distance from the body of the deceased, and suicides are even required to be buried separately from ancestors.
Every April 5, family members gather at the gravesites of their lost relatives to tend the site and leave flowers bearing the name of the gifter. In the case of far-off relatives, bouquets with their names are laid on the grave.
More orthodox Jewish sects still observe a seven-day period of mourning called “sitting shiva.” During the shiva period, mourners receive the condolences of friends and family at home, often while seated on a low stool or box — hence the term. Shiva.com says that this custom of sitting closer to the ground is a physical metaphor for the “low” feeling of grief.
Thus for a week, the family members receive visitors in their home as a way of communal mourning, as depicted in the movie, "This Is Where I Leave You" (pictured). This is frequently accompanied by recitation of the Hebrew Kaddish prayer for the dead and readings from the Torah in an event called a “minyan.” Reciting the Kaddish is often done for nearly a full year leading up to the unveiling of the tombstone itself, which serves as a “matzevah,” or monument to the loved one.
Aborigines Stop Speaking of the Deceased
The Aboriginal culture of Australia takes a rather hard-core view of death and mourning that people in cultures revering ancestry would likely find horrifying. As a migrant warrior-hunter people, the Aborigines were constantly following their food supply from place to place.
An injured member of the tribe would hold up the rest of the group’s survival, and so they were basically left behind on their own to die. (The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.)
Aborigines Stop Speaking of the Deceased (Cont.)
Or when the natural order of things took the life of a group member, it was decreed by an elder that there would be days of wailing, at the end of which the deceased was never spoken of again. Ever. The site CreativesSpirits.info says there is a superstition that saying the dead person’s name aloud may inadvertently recall their spirit to earth.
In modern times, this extends to photographs and motion pictures. Most shows and movies airing on Australian TV offer a disclaimer upfront that images of deceased people may be included, giving viewers a chance to change the channel.
South Africa and Renewal Through Grief
Some cultures in South Africa consider it an honor to wrap the dead in the skin of a slaughtered animal like the one underneath the casket from Nelson Mandela's funeral (pictured). The body is also often buried along with treasured earthly possessions like special blankets and kitchen utensils, according to Frazer Consultants.
South Africa and Renewal Through Grief (Cont.)
After food and drinks in celebration of the deceased, the family then begins its official mourning, during which they aren’t supposed to leave home, speak loudly or even laugh. Mourners often follow the tradition of shaving the head as a symbol of death and new life.
Later, a “ritual cleansing” of objects or people that came into contact with the body of the deceased is performed.
The Booziness of an Irish Wake
Toasts — a great many of them — are raised in honor of the recently deceased at an Irish wake, which is designed to be filled with mirth and revelry, both to celebrate the life of the loved one as well as to give comfort to the living. These were typically staged at a home, before professional funeral directors became more ubiquitous in Ireland’s rural counties.
Irish Central posits that this tradition predates Christian influence and has pagan roots, though this is uncertain. Whatever its origins, whiskey and Guinness are guaranteed to be in full supply to accompany ribald jokes and stories of Uncle Liam’s nightly carousing. Thankfully, some darker traditions of Irish wakes, such as contests to see who could lift the corpse the highest or hiding beneath the casket to make the body “wave” at a mourner, have fallen out of fashion.
The Old Meets New in Russia
Russian history goes back well over a thousand years, which was more than enough time for folk funeral traditions to have melded with the rites of Orthodox Christianity that permeates the Eastern sects of Christendom.
In Russia, the body is typically washed and dressed in the traditional color of white, reports the website Funeral Zone, with the robes left unhemmed as a sign that the decedent now belongs to the world of the ancestors.
The Old Meets New in Russia (Cont.)
Funeral Zone also says that a departed Russian used to be laid out on the dining room table.
In modern times, hygiene and propriety have taken over, and the body now thankfully rests in a casket instead. Special commemorations take place on the third, ninth and 40th day after the death, as well as on the half-year and one-year marks, when mourners pray, feast and give alms to the poor.
Hinduism and Cremation
Similar to Buddhism, Hindus believe in reincarnation and that the soul will soon return in another body — human or otherwise.
Thus mourning periods for Hindus are relatively short, according to the Huffington Post, with 13 days set aside to grieve, lest the soul of the departed not find its way into a new mortal vessel.
Hinduism and Cremation (Cont.)
Just after the person dies, an oil lamp is set near the body and will burn for three days. The body is supposed to be cremated on the day after death, but only between the hours of sunrise and sunset. During mourning, people are supposed to wear white, have only one meal per day consisting of vegetarian elements and bathe twice each day.
On the 13th day, a “shaddra” ceremony is performed, offering gifts to the gods and to the person’s ancestors. At the end of the 13th day, the mourning period is considered over, and life as it was before is meant to continue.
Dia de Los Muertos
As the pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas were subsumed (to read: conquered) by the Spanish, Portuguese and later the English, French and Dutch, many of their traditions became infused with Christian celebrations forced upon by the Europeans.
In fact, in Mexico and Mexican-American communities, the familiar Dia de Los Muertos (or “Day of the Dead”) is a fusion of ancient Aztec rituals and Spanish Catholicism. This three-day event commences on Oct. 31 — yep, Halloween — and ends on Nov. 2, All Souls' Day in the church calendar.
Dia de Los Muertos (Cont.)
The belief is that, during this time, the souls of the dead are able to re-enter the world of the living, and the living honor their relatives and ancestors by setting up altars and offerings for the spirits — sort of a reverse trick-or-treating, but with costumes and face masks as elaborate as any seen on Halloween. (Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, was traditionally the night before All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1.)
Because this culture views life and death as more fluid, the festivities including costumes, feasts and rituals are seen as a fun time for many and a celebration of life that’s just as important as grieving for those who are gone.
Out-of-This-World Screaming for the Dead
While grief can be a time for mourning for some and celebration for others, we wanted to end this story on a bit of a lighter note from the final frontier.
On an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” it was revealed that when a Klingon dies — hopefully in battle — his fellow extraterrestrials scream at the heavens to warn the spirits of the afterlife that a warrior is on its way to the ethereal plane. (You can watch it here.)
While this is purely fiction, it does bear at least a passing resemblance to ancient Viking rituals. The BBC reports that the pre-Christian Scandinavians believed their fallen brethren went to Valhalla, where the deceased would continue in glorious battle into eternity, with the drinks never running out.